‘Caste’ was first used in Arabia in the 17th century in the context of Hindus. Terms like Ashraaf, Ajlaf, and Arzaal Muslims are alien to Islam.
It would be naïve to negate the existence of inequality and discrimination in Muslim societies on the basis of various denominations, but it would also be equally unwise to unearth any divine theory of caste system in the early age of Islam. It is tantamount to the rejection of the established history and the foundational principles of the religion.
The debate on the caste system in Muslim societies needs to be put in perspective instead of attempting to excavate its root in Islam. The single most important authority in Islam was the Prophet Muhammad and no one can alter anything in the religion, no matter how big a scholar or political leader they are, and that includes the Sahaba (Prophet’s companions). Precisely, no one can attach piety or impiety to any acts and terms whatsoever. So, all the debates surrounding the Ashraaf, Ajlaf, and Arzaal categories of Muslims should be viewed in the Indian context. These terms are alien to Islam.
In an article by Dr. Faiyaz Ahmad Fyzie, the writer says that the early Caliphs in Islam were selected on the basis of caste — the Quraysh being the recipient of the privilege. In this context, the writer’s attempts to interpret Ashar-e-Mubashira and ‘Quraysh superiority’ in the context of caste do not stand true, both principally and historically. Notably, in the parlance of divine theory, caste was first used in Arabia only in the 17th century in the context of the Hindu system of social stratification. The Arabs were completely unaware of the term and its implications. Therefore, excavating a caste angle in the list of Ashra Mubashira is utterly wrong. The writer does not only contradict the basic principles of Islam but also his own admission in the beginning when he mentions that the Prophet was “against birth-based discrimination”. While Sunni Muslims agree on the number of the Sahaba accorded the Basharat (declaration for heaven), the Prophet had, on other occasions, mentioned other personalities — including Khadija bint Khuwaylid, Fatimah bint Muhammad, Maryam bint ‘Imran, and ‘Asiyah bint Muzahim — as ones who would also enter Paradise.
In the same vein, finding a caste angle in the nomination of early Caliphs is again misleading. Perhaps, the writer did not come across the complete history or interpret the aforementioned incidents in the correct way, though the article is indeed well-intended.
No caste basis in Quran, Prophet’s sayings
First, there is no denying the fact that the people from Quraysh tribe, into which the Prophet was born, enjoyed the authority to rule the erstwhile Muslim world. However, the arguments presented by the author to support his preconceived notion are based on half-truths. The choice of the Quraysh for the post of the Caliph was made by the Prophet himself before his death. His pick was in accordance with the Quranic directive of “amruhum shura baynahum (Their system is based on their consultation)”, which refers to a democratic process. While saying that the political authority shall remain with Quraysh, he also clarified the reasons for it. He argued: “People in this matter follow the Quraish. The believers of Arabia are the followers of their believers and the disbelievers of Arabia are the followers of their disbelievers.” (Muslim, Kitābu’l-Imārah).
In another account, the Prophet said: “The people of Arabia are not aware of anyone’s political leadership except that of the Quraish. (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hambal, vol 1. P. 56). Precisely, he said that the Quraysh enjoyed the trust of the Arabs, so the ruler would be from the same tribe. It was the best available choice he had to apply the democratic principle on the ground. After all, there was no election commission or electronic voting machines to know the trust of the people for electing a leader. On the other hand, it is well-documented that the Prophet often gave precedence to the suggestions of the Ansars of Medina over Muhajirs (companions who arrived from Mecca) since the former were in majority. Therefore, there are various incidents documented in several books that prove that the views of the Ansars prevailed in the decision-making process. But the situation evidently changed after the fall of Mecca.
Second, the event of Saqifa was not mentioned wholly where stalwart Ansari companion Sa‘d ibn ‘Ubadah reportedly claimed for Caliph. The Ansari companions were delivering stirring speeches to prove their entitlement to the leadership of the Arabs, but Abu Bakr reminded them of the Prophet’s saying: “O Sa‘ad! You know very well that the Prophet (sws) had said in your presence that the Quraysh shall be given the Khilafat because the noble among the Arabs follow their nobles and their ignobles follow their ignobles.” None other than Sa‘ad himself came forward and replied: “What you say is correct, we are your advisers and you are our rulers.” (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hambal, vol. 1, p.5) Of the four rightly guided Caliphs, (Khilafat-e-Rashida), only one (Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib) belonged to the Hashimite clan. Notably, 10 clans were in the tribe. The other three belonged to three different clans — Taim, Adi and Umayya — Abu Bakr, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, and Uthman ibn Affan.
Third, the Prophet and his companions fought the first battle against the Quraysh and the members of the Hashimite clan were the first to oppose him. Prophet called Abu Jahal the “father of ignorance” after he refused to embrace Islam. His actual name was ʿAmr ibn Hishām, and he was also commonly known as Abu Hakam, meaning ‘father of wisdom’. In the Battle of Badr, and many subsequent battles, there were many companions who fought against their own sons, fathers, forefathers, and uncles. There are innumerable verses in the Quran and the Prophet’s statements clearly put that the best among the people are those who do good deeds and believe in Allah. Prophet Muhammad said in his last sermon: “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”
Ashraf Quamar is a Delhi-based journalist currently working for Media Today, a communication firm that extends services to UN agencies. He was former chief sub-editor at Hindustan Times. Quamar has also worked for The Statesman, Sahara and other media outlets. Views are personal.